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Martin thinks he's a success, even without title

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- It is not too much we ask of Mark Martin.

Just some anguish interspersed with all that success. Perhaps some self pity in the midst of all that pride. It can't be that hard, can it?

If we want to commiserate, we need to see disappointment. If we want to console, there has to be suffering in the picture. If he's going to be our sentimental favorite, the man's got to look a little needy.

Ah, but if it's all the same to you, Martin will pass.

We may fear the opening of another NASCAR season is one more chance for Martin to fall short. To him, it's one more opportunity to succeed.

His is a career like no other. For, you see, never has so much success required so much explanation.

Martin, 44, has more career winnings ($36,170,215) than all but three drivers in the sport's history. He has won races across three decades and from coast to coast. Among the 40-somethings still hanging around the garage, he is the most competitive.

There's just one hitch.

He's never been the Winston Cup champion.

As far as Martin is concerned, it is a hole in his resume. As for everyone else, it seems to be the sum of his existence.

How can someone have chased something for so long and not be obsessed? How can they have come close so many times and not have gone batty?

It happened again last year, you might recall. Martin finished with 4,762 points, but Tony Stewart had 4,800. For the fourth time he was the series runner-up. For the eighth time, he finished in the top three.

What is it that has kept him from the title?

"Last year," Martin deadpans, "I believe it was 38 points."

He jokes, we kvetch.

And, when you get right down to it, he has the better approach.

This is more fluke than it is failure. More a reflection of his prowess than an indication of his shortcomings.

This is not a golfer who keeps fading on the final day of a major. Or the Vegas favorite getting embarrassed in the Super Bowl.

Martin has had so many opportunities to win because he has been consistently excellent. He has had so many near misses because of happenstance.

In 1998, he won seven races and compiled more series points than any driver had accumulated in more than 20 years. It just so happened that was the season Jeff Gordon won 13 races and ran up an unprecedented 5,328.

In 1990, a rules violation cost Martin 46 points early in the season. He lost the series title by 26 to the late Dale Earnhardt.

Ten times he has finished in the top five of the season series standings. How impressive is that? Earnhardt (14) and Darrell Waltrip (12) are the only drivers with more top-five finishes.

Yet we expect Martin to be haunted by his failures.

"I have to consistently explain to writers why my career is not in crisis," Martin said. "My glass is very full. There's probably room in it for a couple of things that are not in that glass yet, but it's very full. I have had a fantastic career, and I'm very proud of it."

In the garage to his left at Daytona is Stewart, who won the series title in his fourth season. To his right is Kurt Busch, a Roush Racing teammate who was 3 years old when Martin made his NASCAR debut and is now considered a more likely Winston Cup contender.

If he feels threatened by a younger generation, Martin never shows it. He is less outspoken than some of the other veterans and far less cranky.

There is a certain dignity about Martin that is impossible to ignore. A sense of pride that has never been burdened by pomposity.

"You would think it'd be a little easier for me by now," Martin said. "The pressure just seems to pile on year after year. It's not like I'm trying to keep the pressure on myself, it's just always there."

Only when the talk comes around to the lack of a Winston Cup title, as it inevitably does, will Martin feel compelled to defend himself.

Earlier this year, during a media tour, he was asked about the similarities between himself and Sterling Marlin. Like Martin, Marlin is a veteran driver without a series championship. Unlike Martin, Marlin feels he needs a Cup championship to vindicate his career.

"He doesn't have four IROC championships and 33 Winston Cup wins and 45 Busch wins and all that stuff, I guess," Martin said. "I would hate to think that my career would be considered a failure. The (possible) failure of my career is long since passed.

"I don't think there's any jeopardy of my career being a failure. I don't feel that at all. I'm very, very proud of what I've been able to accomplish."

Spoken like a true champion.

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